Why Arm’s lawsuit against Qualcomm is a big deal

Qualcomm Inc. President and CEO Cristiano Amon speaks during the company’s press event for CES 2022 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on January 4, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world’s largest annual consumer technology trade show, is being held in person Jan. 5-7, with some companies deciding to attend virtually only or canceling attendance due to concerns over a sharp rise in COVID cases. -19.

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Arm is suing Qualcomm, putting two of the most valuable semiconductor companies in direct conflict and raising questions about the future of the partnership between the two companies.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, comes at a critical time for Arm as its owner Softbank hopes to soon list the company on public markets after a deal to sell it to Nvidia fell through in due to regulations. meticulous examination.

But the lawsuit also threatens Qualcomm’s expansion plans, as it hoped to use the Nuvia processor designs at the heart of the dispute to compete more directly with Apple’s iPhone and Mac chips, and eventually use them to crack the chip market. server, a lucrative space. dominated by Intel and AMD. Nuvia was founded by former Apple chip designers and Qualcomm spent $1.4 billion to acquire it in 2021. Qualcomm’s current Snapdragon chips for smartphones are also based on Arm technology.

Arm is seeking damages and forcing Qualcomm to destroy Nuvia’s acquisition information and materials, including chips, dies, packaging and promotional materials.

The dispute involves the rights to develop a chip using Arm’s Instruction Set Architecture (ISA), a core piece of intellectual property with origins dating back to 1985 that describes how a chip performs basic functions like memory access or basic arithmetic.

The rise of Arm in recent years

Arm-based chips have gained momentum in recent years because they are more power efficient than x86-based chips made by Intel and AMD. More than 29 billion Arm technology-based chips have shipped in 2021, including the chips at the heart of Apple’s iPhones, Macs and iPads.

Some companies, like Apple, licenses ISA to Arm, then designs its own physical processor circuitry to implement the ISA instructions. Other companies, like Qualcomm historically, also buy the rights to complete Arm base designs, marketed as Cortex. Arm reported $2.7 billion in license and royalty sales in 2021.

The lawsuit highlights the tension between Arm’s business licensing the underlying intellectual property to make processors that could compete with the company’s own designs. Arms said last year that it viewed Qualcomm as a competitor and that architectural licensing posed a threat to its implementation business.

Intellectual property and contract lawsuits in the semiconductor industry are common. But the Arm-Qualcomm lawsuit is a major dispute over who can design the kind of chip at the heart of almost every smartphone in the world. This could have significant ramifications for chip startups and could pave the way for the adoption of open-source alternatives to Arm.

Qualcomm General Counsel Ann Chaplin said in a statement that the dispute was a departure from a “long and fruitful relationship.”

“Arm has no right, contractual or otherwise, to attempt to interfere with Qualcomm or NUVIA innovations,” Chaplin said. “Arm’s complaint ignores the fact that Qualcomm has extensive and well-established licensing rights covering its custom-designed processors, and we are confident that these rights will be upheld.”

Meanwhile, Arm said in a statement that the company had “no choice but to bring this complaint against Qualcomm and Nuvia to protect our intellectual property, our business, and to ensure customers can access valid products. based on Arm”.

Qualcomm’s Nuvia strategy

Qualcomm bought Nuvia because it wanted its chips to perform better than it could with an off-the-shelf Arm processor design, especially to compete with Apple’s high-efficiency custom Arm cores. Nuvia, a startup founded by ex-Apple and Google engineers, was developing a server chip with custom cores under an architecture license. He also had access to Arm’s basic designs.

After the acquisition, Qualcomm put Nuvia at the heart of its smartphone and PC strategy, using the startup’s cores to make its laptop processors more competitive with Apple’s M-series chips in launched products. from 2023.

Qualcomm also offered Nuvia-based cloud processors to cloud providers such as Amazon, according to Bloomberg News.

Arm says in his lawsuit that Nuvia’s architectural license was not transferred to Qualcomm upon its purchase. Qualcomm has an architectural license, Arm says, but needed Arm’s consent to purchase and use Nuvia’s custom base designs. Arm terminated its Nuvia licenses in March, he said.

If it holds up in court, Qualcomm’s entire chip strategy could be in flux.

However, there may be an alternative route.

Karl Freund, founder and analyst at Cambrian AI Research, speculated that Qualcomm might try using RISC-V, an open-source alternative to Arm’s instruction set.

Arm told regulators in December that RISC-V’s “momentum is building” and that established vendors are increasingly using it instead of Arm’s instruction set. A little startups are currently building processor cores based on RISC-V, but it has not yet been used in high-volume smartphones, which all currently use Arm.

However, Arm’s efforts to enforce its intellectual property with long-term partners will likely cause companies that build custom Arm cores to reconsider open-source alternatives.

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